Authors: Matthew Morris
parents had bought their house mostly because it had its own dock, but they also loved the history it held as an old whaling captain’s house. They named the house “Sweet Haven,” because people who lived near the water liked to name their houses. As a kid, Meg’s father loved Popeye the Sailor. He knew that Sweet Haven was the town where the cartoon character had lived, and he even had the habit of calling his own kids “Sweet Pea,” like the baby in Popeye. Shay even looked a little like Olive Oyl with her jet black hair. A hand-carved wood sign that said “Sweet Haven” was nailed to one of the pilings, and the dock that floated on the water was covered with trawls.
The trawls were laid out on benches and Mark, Eileen
, and Meg quickly set to work with clippers and plastic straps, snipping the old vents off and strapping the new vents on. Mark started on one end and Meg and Eileen were at the other. It always ended up in a race to see who could do more as they worked toward the trawls in the center.
While they were working,
Eileen looked at Meg over a trap and said, “I can’t believe you went outside alone last night. What were you thinking?” Meg’s big sister had a menacing look on her face.
“Didn’t you listen to me at breakfast? I just wanted to find out what had made the big crashing noise that woke me up.”
Eileen looked down. “How did Dad find out you were outside?” she whispered.
“He heard me open the patio door
. Why do you care?”
“Forget about it,” said Eileen
. Meg could tell that she was making a mental note about something.
As always, their father did twice as many vents by himself as the
two sisters did together, winning the race. Just as they finished the last trap, Shay came down to the dock with Sean and a bag filled with everything they would need for a day on the water. Meg’s mother was always prepared for anything, and the “day bag” for sailing was a huge, waterproof duffel bag filled with food, foul-weather gear, and other things Shay thought they might need. She brought the day bag aboard every time they went on the boat, no matter how long they were going to be out. Sometimes Meg thought her mother was silly carrying all that stuff, because they rarely used any of it. But Shay always said that she would rather be safe than sorry, and made sure the day bag was jammed with safety equipment.
They loaded up the sailboat and soon cast off of their dock for the short trip to Nanny’s on Fishers Island
, across the sound from their house.
It was really quite warm for the middle of October. The family only needed light clothes and windbreakers for the short sail across Fishers Island Sound, the smaller body of water that separated their island from the one that their grandmother lived on. The wind was up and the boat was moving fast.
Kathleen “Nanny” Sullivan had emigrated from Ireland to Connecticut and had “found” Fishers Island on a sailing excursion with her husband Sean long ago. The island’s stone walls, few trees
, and windswept moors looked exactly like her home in Ireland; it had got that look after a hurricane devastated the island in the 1800s. From the first time she set foot on shore, Nanny felt right at home and decided then and there that Fishers Island was the place she was going to live and raise a family.
Sean Sullivan wasn’t so sure. They had only been married a short time and he was still getting used to living in America
that day they had sailed out to the island. Being isolated on an island was not his first choice as a place to settle, and he had just started a job with his cousin to learn the building trade, but Kathleen always got her way. Shay always said her mother could convince a bird to walk across town instead of fly. He agreed to give it a try. Sean was able to find work for the many “old money” families who summered on the island. He was a farmer’s son who had also learned enough carpentry to make a decent living by both gardening and taking care of the estates that dotted the island. Kathleen easily found work at the yacht club on Fishers, teaching the sailing skills that she had learned as a little girl while growing up on the hard, west coast of Ireland. She taught Shay, their only child, everything she knew.
The sound that separates Fishers Island from Connecticut is a hazard
-filled body of water. There are numerous reefs, shoals, and boulder patches that rise abruptly from the sea floor, any of which could easily strand or sink a boat. But Shay Murphy had been diving and sailing these waters since she was a child, and she knew every inch of the seabed like she knew her children. A less-skilled sailor would never be able to follow the path Shay charted from Mystic to Wilderness Point on the island, but she loved to challenge herself and her boat, the
in Gaelic, the Irish language) was a New Haven Sharpie sailboat with a cat-ketch rig. Before the age of power, this type of sailboat was very popular for oystering on the east coast of America, but is considered old-fashioned nowadays. A typical sailboat is a single-masted
with two triangular sails. The smaller sail in the front is called the
and the larger one in the rear is called the
On a sloop, the mast is in the center of the boat. The
has a single mast towards the
(the front of the boat) with one sail, and a slightly smaller
mast towards the
(the rear of the boat). The cat-ketch rig used to be very popular on work boats in the old days but fell out of style as sailboats became leisure craft.
ifferent sailboats all have advantages and disadvantages, and sailors are particular regarding the type of boat they prefer. Shay Murphy loved the
with her two masts and gentle sailing ways. There was a reason the New Haven Sharpie
was the choice for work boats: It could be rigged by one person in under five minutes and sailed alone just as easily. The
also had a shallow draft which helped Shay to use it as her fishing boat. She would sail it out to a reef or shoal, drop the sails, and anchor the boat while she dove beneath the waters to handpick the scallops.
Meg’s mother had started scuba diving at a young age. Nanny said that Shay
had seen Jacques Cousteau, the underwater explorer, on TV one Saturday morning and begged and begged them until they gave her scuba lessons. After one dive in Fishers Island Sound she was hooked, and Shay spent any free time she had under the water with a tank on her back. Scuba had been just a hobby until she read about scallop diving and decided to see if she could turn her passion into a job. She was one of the first scallop divers in Connecticut. It was a rough go at first, but Shay’s diver’s scallops developed a devoted following at local restaurants, and eventually scallop diving became a successful business for her. Using a sailboat as a fishing vessel removed the price of fuel from the bottom line and made her diver’s scallops even more profitable.
Shay had been at the tiller of a sailboat her whole life. With a sailing instructor for a mother and a home on an
island, she didn’t have much choice. Nanny started teaching her sailing at a young age, and they spent a lot of their free time under billowing
, or sails, cruising along the shores of Connecticut and New York. They sailed so often and loved it so much that they made a vow to each other that they would only travel on the water in a vessel with sails. Since Shay had spent so much of her life on, or diving below, the water, it was only natural for her to raise her children from the helm of a sailboat just as she had been.
Meg absolutely loved being on the
. Unlike her father’s boat, that smelled of diesel and was as loud as anything, the
was whisper quiet and had just the smell of hardwood and the sound of the sea. Since sailing was in her blood, at the age of four and following in the footsteps of her mother and grandmother, Meg had also made the vow to never travel on the water in a motor boat. Mark was astounded at his little girl’s declaration. But from that point on, she never set foot in her father’s boat or, for that matter, any boat with an engine, much to his consternation.
was Meg’s sanctuary. She had been sailing in her since she was a baby, strapped to a special seat at the helm, a seat that was now occupied by her baby brother Sean. The rolling and rocking of the boat was the most comforting feeling she knew and the salt air held the smell of home to her. Meg’s love of the water was as much a part of her as her love for her family, and she wanted to spend every minute she could on or near the water.
Meg’s whole famil
y loved the water except Eileen, who was the only land lover of the family. She preferred to be on her bike, on a stage dancing, or doing just about any activity that she could on land. It wasn’t that Eileen hated the sea; she had grown up on it like they all had, but she just had too many things to do on land to waste time floating around on the water. Even so, Eileen had enough salt water in her blood that even she felt at ease while sailing on the
Because it was her birthday, Meg was at the tiller and in control of the boat.
In fact, as soon as Meg knew the difference between a
, Shay had allowed her to man the helm whether it was her birthday or not. All her mom would do during these trips would be to tell Meg how and where to navigate, but Meg knew what she was doing. With her own lifelong sailing experience and great instructors, Meg eventually knew as much as her mom and Nanny did about this body of water and didn’t need much help. She quickly learned to navigate around the sound in almost any wind and tidal condition.
sailed across Fishers Island Sound and then followed the northern shore of the island past Chocomount Cove and West Harbor. The wind was stiff and the sailing was fast, but Meg handled the boat like an artist with a brush.
Meg felt completely alive
at these moments. Hair blowing in the wind and the salty water misting in her face, it was as close to heaven as a girl could get, at least a girl with seafaring blood like Meg. She kept a close eye on the
as she liked to call them, which were small pieces of fabric attached to the
, or leading edge of the sail. Sailors used the telltales as indicators of how efficiently the wind moved over the sheet. If the green telltale
towards the top was streaming and the red one at the bottom was fluttering, Meg knew she needed to tighten up the sheet to get better speed. She kept one hand on the tiller, the other on the lines that controlled the sheets, and her eyes on the course she needed to take.
Each part of the course is called a
, and each leg has a landmark towards which the boat is steered. As they sailed across the sound, the wind was on the
, or left, side of the boat. When the wind is on that side it is called a
. No matter which way a sailor is turned, port is always the left-hand side of the boat, looking forward to the bow and starboard is always the right. Meg’s first landmark was Chocomount Cove, which she kept in sight over the bow. She just had to tweak her course every now and again to avoid certain things she had been trained to look for on the surface of the water.
Shay had taught Meg to read the water like a book. Meg was always looking ahead for
cat’s paw patches
, where a light wind ripples the surface of the water and could cause her to lose speed. When the waves in front of the sailboat went from long and slow to short and fast, Meg knew that the seabed was closer to the surface of the water and that she had to avoid the shallow water. This is called wave
. Meg knew to read these and other signs from the surface of the water to help her on the course she was sailing.
As she turned starboard off
of the island’s shore, the wind was now directly behind the boat. This left Meg a couple of options on how to approach the next leg. She could turn the boat so that the wind was directly aft of the boat, and let out each sail as far as they could go on both sides so that they looked like a pair of wings. This is called
. It was not her best option because a shift in the wind could cause one of the sails and its boom to violently swing in the opposite direction in an accidental
which could snap the rigging, or worse, knock someone overboard. Shay and Meg only butterflied when they were alone and only with perfect wind. Meg decided instead to keep the wind on a
or just slanting to the rear of the
and start jibing towards the North and South Dumpling islands, her next landmark. It was a little slower but much safer.
North Dumpling Island was a local legend. It was owned by the famous inventor of the Segway
, the two-wheeled, self-balancing personal transporter. He had turned an old lighthouse into his residence and the island into a small compound. When the government turned down an attempt by him to build a wind turbine to power the island, he jokingly seceded from United States and refers to his property as the Kingdom of North Dumpling. The eccentric inventor even had a replica of Stonehenge built on the northeastern corner of the island. Meg kept this in her sight while doing controlled jibes port and starboard of the wind.
of islands the Murphy family lived around started in the sound and ended up in the ocean at the very popular Block Island. Fishers Island, where Nanny lived, was secluded and did not get the large number of visitors that Block Island, the next island up the east coast, received. Both islands were first charted in 1614 by Dutch explorer Adrian Block who named the larger island after himself. The smaller island, Nanny’s, was named either for Block’s First Mate Mr. Visscher or for the local Pequots who fished on this island they called
place of observation
. The Native American name was quite appropriate for Fishers Island, and the Murphy family spent a day every now and then walking around the island “observing” when they visited Nanny. Shay loved to show her kids where she grew up and Mark loved to gawk at the classic cars that traveled the island’s roads. There were not many cars on the island, but the few there were all seemed to be the most beautiful old cars from a bygone era.
Meg turned the boat port after passing the Dumplings
and headed up the west coast. The wind was now in front of them which made the sailing a little more challenging. Every sailboat has a
. This is a thirty-to-fifty-degree arc where the wind cannot fill the sails to produce forward motion. When Meg turned the boat into the wind they were in the no-go zone for just a moment, but the boat drifted into a payoff and the wind filled the sheets again.
A close haul is when the boat heads into the wind just slightly to one side of the no
-go zone. This is when the telltales come in really handy. When
into the wind, Meg paid close attention to the telltales and pulled the sheets in tightly to get the most efficient air movement, steering as closely to the no-go zone as possible without them